Twenty-five years ago, Jermaine Dupri launched So So Def, a label that would help lay the blueprint for what Atlanta rap and R&B sounded like. He was 20-years old.
The first release under the So So Def imprint was Xscape’s debut Hummin’ Comin’ at ‘Cha, featuring the classic single “Just Kickin'” — a song JD wrote and produced. From there, the label, and JD himself, would go on an almost unprecedented streak of successes. Within the label’s first decade, you got records like Da Brat’s Funkdafied, Jagged Edge’s J.E. Heartbreak, Lil Bow Wow’s Beware of Dog Lil’ Bow Wow, and Jermaine Dupri’s solo debut Life in 1472, which turned 20 years old earlier this year. (JD also did monumental work outside of the So So Def umbrella, crafting classics for Mariah Carey, Usher, and Janet Jackson.)
Last month, the producer, rapper, songwriter, actor, and entrepreneur opened the doors to Jermaine Dupri & So So Def: 25 Years of Elevating Culture, an exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum that celebrates the extensive legacy of the label. The exhibit, which will be going on for four months, features memorabilia, rare photos, and nuggets of information and facts about the label.
During the exhibit’s opening night, attendees conjoined for an intimate conversation with Jermaine Dupri and his associates, including Anthony Hamilton, Jagged Edge, Da Brat, Dem Franchize Boyz, and industry friend Jon Platt (CEO of Warner/Chappell Music Publishing). The formal Q&A quickly turned into an hour and half of untold stories.
At one point, Da Brat recalled watching In Living Color and seeing Kris Kross on the screen, thinking she could be a part of the group. She joked about blowing up Dupri’s phone before she got a callback. (She would eventually become the first female rapper to sell a million copies.)
At another moment, Dem Franchize Boyz remembered being let go of Universal Records and JD came and swooped the group up. Hit singles like “I Think They Like Me” and “Lean Wit It Rock Wit It” came soon after.
And Anthony Hamilton talked about how JD listened to his demo tape, and didn’t change a single thing. That demo tape would eventually turn into Comin’ From Where I’m From, the singer’s Platinum sophomore album.
The evening of the opening, Okayplayer was able to sit down with the iconic producer. We talked about the most essential So So Def songs, what the Atlanta rap/R&B Mount Rushmore looks like, and why Life in 1472 is classic.
What are the five essential So So Def songs?
Jermaine Dupri: “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ; “Just Kickin’ it” by Xscape; “Where the Party At” by Jagged Edge featuring Nelly; “Funkdafied” by Da Brat; and “Money Ain’t a Thang” by Jermaine Dupri featuring Jay-Z.
You just remade “Welcome to Atlanta.” What do you remember about making the original?
Trying to think, but not overthink. Because we wanted to make a song that people from Atlanta would put their arms around. But at the same time, make a record that people would really like, and not be corny and try to just make a city song. It was a difficult mindset for a second trying to get into that space, but we just loosened up and made the record.
How do you feel this new wave of hip-hop and R&B artists compares to acts from the ’90s?
I think it’s cool. So much of it is coming from Atlanta. It just changes because it’s so melodic, it makes R&B music have to become something different. Or not different, but more R&B has to evolve around all of the melody that these rappers are doing. So it’s good.
This year is the 20 year anniversary of Life in 1472. How do you feel about that album?
It’s a classic. That album was the beginning of a lot of things, that’s why I consider it a classic. There’s a lot of things that started from that album. There’s a lot of people’s careers that changed after that album came out. I guess that’s one of my greatest projects.
Do you ever brag about giving Kanye his first big production placement?
Nah. I feel like it’s like a college thing. There’s someplace he had to go to get to where he wanted to be.
Tell me about the making of Ghost Town DJ’s“My Boo?”
That record was like a “try to”… There used to be these DJs in Atlanta that would mix “Planet Rock” with Whitney Houston. If you put “So Emotional” by Whitney Houston over top of “Planet Rock” it sounds amazing. Everyone used to just love it. If you were a DJ, this was one of the blends you used to think about and tried to do. When we were making the Bass All-Stars, we were trying to come up and recreate our own version of a blend and put somebody singing over that type of beat.
What’s the greatest So-So Def album of all time?
I’m going to say J.E. Heartbreak by Jagged Edge. It’s a classic R&B album.
Tell me your favorite story of Da Brat in the studio?
There’s a bunch of them. I’d probably say making “Da B-Side” with her and [The Notorious B.I.G]. Not knowing where B.I.G was going to be or what he was going to become, but him being so lyrical and Brat standing toe to toe with him on the song. That kind of changed my whole perspective of her. It let me see that when she got in the room with people that had their game up a level, she was going to up hers too. Because a lot of times, I would write for Da Brat when she first started. But as she started getting older and understanding the game, she started writing for herself. This was one of those days when she was writing herself. I could feel the energy of what she felt coming from Biggie, and the way he gave her the lob on the record, she came out of it a champ.
If you could redo Kris Kross’ second and third albums would you?
No. Well, the third album I feel like was probably their most original. Those are hood-classic records on that album. I feel like when we make music or rap records, we always try not to copy somebody. That third Kriss Kross album, Young, Rich & Dangerous, it don’t sound like nobody else’s records. And we were doing things that still were ahead of its time that people were even doing. Like the fact that it’s Aaliyah singing on “Live and Die for Hip Hop,” I put her on the record because she was just sitting in the studio with me. I was like, “I need somebody’s vocals,” and she was like, “Let me do it.” And she got on that song. Like I said, these type of records were the beginning of a bunch of things. Nobody at Columbia (Records) even knew who Aaliyah was. They didn’t even want to put a feature on the record because they didn’t know who the artist was.
What would the Atlanta rap/R&B Mount Rushmore look like?
Aw man, it might have to be two mountains. [laughs] I don’t know if there could be one Atlanta Mount Rushmore, there’s too much. I think it’d be two mountains, and I’d definitely be on one of them. Man, it’s crazy. It’s just a lot of things. Atlanta music has a lot of different successes.
TLC alone to me, they have to be on there — as a girl group that became worldly, but being from Atlanta. That’s three faces right there. It’s already gone, we might need three mountains. It’s a tough one. I can’t really say, I just know I would be on one of them.
What So So Def record do you feel doesn’t get enough credit?
“Hate In Ya Blood.” I think that when I make harder records, people aren’t looking for them to be huge chart numbers. But if they’re still great records, they get overlooked because people are always looking for a Jermaine Dupri record to be something bigger. But “Hate In Ya Blood” was a super great hip-hop record to me.
What’s one record of yours that you wish you could redo?
I don’t really know. I think “Sweetheart” maybe. I would have made it a little more ghetto. [laughs]
You mentioned earlier about this new wave of Atlanta rappers. Are there any artists that you personally like?
Lil Baby, just because of his excitement. He sounds like he’s excited to rap. He’s excited about doing what he’s doing. I like the excitement. There’s an artist that I signed first, that has recently signed with T.I., named Young Capone aka Ra Ra. He’s super hard to me. And I signed him so I’m telling you, I know. I like Ra Ra. [laughs] But right now, Lil Baby, I think his energy is right.
It’s crazy to think you started in the industry as a backup dancer for Whodini in the ’80s. What’s the best piece of advice you have for an aspiring Jermaine Dupri?
Well I wasn’t no back up dancer [laughs]. I was just a “get in where you fit in” dancer. They were doing something over there, and I would just jump in there and get in. That’s what I would tell somebody. You just got to get in where you fit in. You got to go to things, and don’t have an ego at no time about trying to get to where you’re trying to go. How you got to get there, what you have to do to get there, all of that, you shouldn’t even have a question. It should just be, “Oh, they’re doing that tonight? I’m going. This happening? I’m going.” That way, you never know what’s going to happen once you’re in that action.
You mentioned working with Usher on his forthcoming album. How far are you and how has the creative process been?
I mean, we’ve been making records for a while. But once again, when you’re the producer, you don’t ever ever know what’s going to happen with the records. You just have to see. Confessions, they left “My Boo” off the record. It finally came out to be a number one record, so you never know what’s going to happen.
Looking at the exhibit, what are some things that you forgot about?
Just looking at all the clothes and… Kris Kross opened up for Michael Jackson. I know it, I was there every day. But just now, I really was taken back. You kind of forget about it. You see the Michael Jackson tour book, the passes, and all that.
What’s your favorite part of the exhibit? What do people have to absolutely come see?
I think the timeline. The timeline wall is probably the craziest, because it looks like somebody planned this, but it wasn’t me. The connection of the years — Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard Jackson — just a whole bunch of strong things are behind what I do, or in front of what I do. Looking at that wall feels like, “Oh, he has energy from this.” I don’t know that that might to be true, but that’s just what it looks like.
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